Okay, everyone. Calm down.
There are a lot of reasons to be worried about the president’s decision to normalize relations with Cuba. Not least among them is that this is the least-adept foreign policy team in post-Cold War history (yes, I include the Carter and Bush 43 White Houses in that evaluation), and after six years of being taken to the cleaners by bad regimes, it feels like it’s happening again. It also looks too much like a quid pro quo for the release of an imprisoned American. And it’s being rationalized by the president himself in terms that show little understanding of the origins of the entire policy he’s about to overturn.
With all of that said, it’s still the right thing to do, and conservatives oppose it at their political peril.
Here’s What Normalization Means
Before we go any farther, however, what exactly are we actually talking about? To judge from the reaction of some conservatives, President Obama just proposed to send Fidel Castro a personal masseuse in a bikini stuffed with hundred-dollar bills. The fact of the matter is, we don’t know what will come from this, other than “normalization:” that is, the ability to establish an embassy, carry on diplomatic relations, and negotiate over trade. Congress—dominated by Republicans for the next two years—will have a large say in how all of that proceeds. So it’s important to maintain some perspective here, especially since there is only so much the president can do by fiat.
As to the policy itself, it was long past time to end the embargo, but that doesn’t mean the policy was always wrong, despite the president’s overly glib dismissal of “50 years that didn’t work.” He’s wrong: the embargo did work, in that it forced enormous costs on the Soviet empire during the long Cold War struggle with the West. The Soviets paid dearly for that little outpost, and the embargo, like any weapon of war, upped that cost significantly.
I’m more than a little familiar with this history, and that’s why ending the embargo goes against every Cold War reflex in my body, as I’m sure it does for many other conservatives of a certain age. To me, Castro will always be the man who encouraged Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to launch a nuclear strike on the United States for Cuba’s sake. (The Soviet boss rebuked him. Imagine a leader too unstable and emotional for Khrushchev.) Castro and his brother deserve, to use a line from the classic Western “Silverado,” “a fair trial and a first-class hanging.”
But that’s not going to happen, and there are several reasons to normalize relations that conservatives should embrace.
How Is Cuba Worse than China?
First and foremost, conservatives need to think carefully about the argument that Cuba is simply too evil a country to have a relationship with us. There is a moral “whataboutism” trap in that position, and liberals will gladly (and rightly) spring it. Many of the people thundering that we cannot even think of dealing with the Castros are the same conservatives who celebrate our massive, and utterly immoral, trade relations with China, a nominally Communist giant whose human rights abuses and mischief in the world dwarf Cuba’s.
Is our indulgence on China only because China is huge? Very well: I also note no similar outrage over our healthy relationship with much smaller Vietnam, a country in which American boys were killed and tortured, often with Chinese weapons and Chinese assistance. Other examples abound.
Yet we normalized relations with both nations. How many of us are wearing clothing with a “made in Vietnam” label right now? (I still can’t get used to that.) Think of it this way: all that cheap junk at your local department store eventually funds nuclear missiles aimed directly at the United States. Are we all ready for a China boycott and closing our Beijing embassy, or is moral outrage reserved only for small nations too broke to buy their way out of our condemnation, however justifiable?
Americans Will Never Forego iPhones for Human Rights
Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for a values-based foreign policy. When I was advising the late Sen. John Heinz of Pennsylvania as a (much) younger man, I made an impassioned argument to the boss that, as a senior Republican, he should buck the first President Bush in 1990 on Most Favored Nation status for China. How could we extend that benefit to the butchers of Beijing, only a year after the Tienanmen massacre? We hadn’t given it to others, like Mikhail Gorbachev’s Soviet Union, and yet we were bowing to China?
I lost that argument. I had to sit through a sham hearing in a Senate committee room, my disgust rising as toy manufacturers explained how Christmas would be completely ruined for poor American kids if we tried to impose any costs on China’s dictators. I learned a hard lesson that day about what happens when money and morality collide in American foreign policy.
So if conservatives want to go down that road, they’d better be sure their own house is in order. Spoiler alert: it’s not, and it can never be, because conservatives have never been the types to start trade wars and to punish every single country that has a hateful regime. In any case, Americans are not going to forego their cheap televisions (or their iPhones, God help us) based on Chinese internal policies.
We must therefore engage the virtue of prudence, and reserve our economic punishment for more dire situations: for Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, for Russia’s destruction of Europe’s peace, for North Korea…well, being North Korea.
The Cold War Is Over
Second, if conservatives really believe that America is the strongest country in the world—the strongest in every way, and not just military power—then we have to stop shrieking at Cuba like the housewife in a 1950s cartoon who just saw a mouse in the kitchen. There was plenty of reason to react with fury against Cuba when it was a Soviet outpost: even Henry Kissinger wanted to bomb the island to retaliate for Cuban meddling in Africa. But the Cold War is over, and in a globalized world, our best weapons are information, money, and culture. If conservatives really want to be associated with the future rather than the past, then they must accept that it’s the twenty-first century, and normalization with Cuba was inevitable.
In fact, conservatives need to guide this policy rather than merely reject it. They need to do so based on optimism and confidence, and not from a stubborn refusal to accept any policy that has the word “Obama” near it. If the White House wants trade and diplomacy with Cuba, then the Senate has a say in this, as will the 2016 presidential candidates, all of whom can breathe a sigh of relief now that Obama has made the initial step a fait accompli.
Finally, I’m a tad sore that a lot of my colleagues on the Right think I’ve gone soft on human rights in all this. I started my career not just as a Sovietologist, but as one of the few conservatives in that academic field when it was dominated by far too many Kremlin apologists who believed that opposing the Soviet Union was unwise and its collapse impossible. I was an ardent Cold Warrior until the end, and if I thought normalization today would hold back the cause of human rights in Cuba, I’d oppose it—as I did throughout the 1990s, when I argued it was too soon, and Castro too powerful, to think of ending Cuba’s isolation. But regime change will come to Cuba sooner rather than later, and we need to decide where we want to be when that happens.
Speaking of the Cold War, let’s think for a moment about Russia. Right now, Vladimir Putin cannot be a happy man. He had plans for the Caribbean, including reestablishing the old Soviet intelligence facility in Cuba. Of course, the Castros are not going to openly dump their pal in Moscow, but it’s unrealistic to think this won’t hurt Cuban-Russian relations, or make at least a small dent in Russia’s general anti-American crusade. The Cubans will be dealing with us—and our dollars—rather than with Putin and his cheap oil or worthless rubles or whatever is lying around the Russian bazaar on any given day.
The United States held together a major coalition against the USSR and its clients during the Cold War, including the odious little regime in Havana. We did our part, even if our own allies long ago decided there was no further point in participating in what they see, rightly or wrongly, as a purely American grudge that no longer involves them. The enemy coalition of which Cuba was an important part is now just dust and faded flags. Let’s move on and secure yet another piece of our Cold-War victory.